Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
A few weekends ago, I found myself at the equivalent of a livestock tailgate party. I was in the thick of the Schaghticoke Poultry Swap — a shindig that happens every spring. It's quite an event. What started as a small gathering to trade and sell chickens has evolved over the years into a parking lot festival of sales and bartering. Since the swap’s inception, the stock has expanded well beyond chickens. This year, there were ducks, geese, quails, rabbits, lambs, kids and more (I swear I walked past a box of puppies). And while it wasn't on the roster — had someone walked through the fairgrounds parking lot with a horse — I wouldn't have blinked an eye.
I was there with a short list. I needed some new laying hens to replace birds that passed away over the winter, nothing drastic. But I was also there hoping to find a very specific animal. I wanted to drive home with a young goat kid, hopefully a spunky buckling. I had been researching pack goats (goats trained to help carry gear on hiking trips via panniers or saddlebags), and if the stars aligned I planned to take home my own backcountry prodigy that same day.
The circumstances had to be perfect though. I wanted an Alpine, a breed known for its trail-hardiness and loyalty. I also wanted an animal that could be bottle-fed and hand-raised, learning from its earliest stages to follow and depend on me. (A job I thought would be endearing and simple ... not a strict regime of mixing milk replacer at 4:45 a.m. But you pay as you go in this world. And I had plenty of time to learn how much would be involved in my first goat.) Consequences were not on my mind. I was about to buy a goat.
When I arrived at the goat pen, I melted. I watched the dozen kids and lambs romp in the back of the truck and then leap out into their grass-lined pen. You haven't seen adorable ’til you've seen a pile of two-week-old goats trying to decide who gets to drive the truck home. They butted and leaped, ran circles and bleated up at the sky. They pretty much terrorized the tepid lambs and loved every second of it. I was one of dozens of people hanging around the pen, laughing and smiling, but unlike most gawking at the show, I was shopping.
"Do you have any bucks?" I shouted across the pen to someone with a clipboard, trying to sound like I knew what the hell I was talking about, "I'm looking for a buckling I can raise for draft work?" They didn't point and laugh at me. My confidence grew.
"Just that one!" The man in charge pointed to a small brown pile of hell leaping out of the truck bed, crashing into a random siblings, and then getting up to do it again. Uh oh. Maybe this goat business was a little more than I could handle? After all, my sheep don't mosh for kicks. But it was too late. He noticed a sucker in the crowd, shook his big floppy ears, and looked up at me with his childish brown eyes. This guy was going home. Might as well clear off the front seat of the car.
I paid the enabler and quickly found out my new adoptee was half Alpine and half Toggenburg. Two breeds known for their mountain savvy. He was mostly brown with white stripes across his face and along his underbelly. I carried him over my shoulder like a toddler. As we made our way back to the car, I heard more than one person say, "Well isn't he cute? Better her than me!" My confidence waned.
I drove back to Cold Antler with new laying hens in the back of the station wagon and a new kid curled up in the front passenger seat. I could not get over how calm and small he was in the car. He slept like a lamb on valium the entire ride. Goats, huh? What could be easier? I named him Finn.
As it turned out, many things are easier. Most things are easier, actually. Since Finn's came to my farm, he's been a delight, but he's also been a nonstop source of trouble and trickiness. There have been the highs of feeding a suckling darling in my lap on the cabin porch during a soft morning rain — and the lows of screaming at him to get out of the lettuce patch when he broke into the garden (several times). Guess what? Goats can learn to climb chain-link fencing. Over the past few weeks, this kid has gnawed on my last nerve, and yet still managed to brighten my worst days. It's hard not to laugh when you watch a young buck jump and twist in the air or headbutt a rooster. The highs are high.
I'm lucky to have a job that lets its employees bring pets to the office. So, while Finn was being bottle-fed we'd show up at the grind together. He'd wait in the car in a big dog crate until lunch and then run around the company lawn, picking play fights with Labradors or doing some landscaping around the building while we ate out on the picnic tables. Welcome to Vermont, where everyday is bring-your-kid-to-work day.
My hope is that Finn's pack training will be the ambassador I need to discover the great outdoors again. Before I had a farm, you couldn't keep me out of hiking trails and National parks. Now, if enough free time from the homestead reveals itself, I'm too whipped to hike. Free time is currently spent in hammocks or playing the banjo on the porch — never on the trail. But that's all going to change, and soon. As summer rolls in, the garden is planted, and all the young animals are maturing, you'll find me out in those Green Mountains from time to time. A girl and her goat, paying as they go.
P.S. If you want to keep track of Finn, stop in anytime at http://coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com
Photo by Tim Bronson